Saturday, June 10, 2017

“Blind Squirrels”

     Are you familiar with the old maxim “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then?” It’s an old bit of folk wisdom, which indirectly exhorts us not to judge the accuracy of an observation by the identity of him who made it. It remains as wise a guide as ever.

     However, the blind squirrel species – i.e., he who can’t see what’s before him, and so must grope blindly to achieve his aims – is not undifferentiated. Some blind squirrels are stupid. Some are merely uninformed. And some, perhaps the most troubling of the species, are highly intelligent, highly erudite men who, because they’re blinded by the aim at the forefront of their thoughts, can’t...quite...grasp a critical fact. Such squirrels provide an invaluable illustration of the inverse of the old maxim: that one mustn’t automatically accept a pronouncement as accurate simply because it comes from a respected source.

     Today’s example arrives from the pixels of the Washington Times, in a brief article by two highly intelligent, highly erudite men:

     After proposing $1 trillion investment into infrastructure, the Trump administration is harnessing the brainpower of renowned experts to unlock the insoluble problem of how many jobs will be created for each billion dollars of spending. While stressing the obvious, the administration is missing the important point.

     The purpose of capitalism is not job creation. The purpose of the capitalist economy is to create wealth. Employment and the subsequent distribution of the spoils of an economy are byproducts of capitalism.

     Contemplate those two paragraphs for a moment. Can you find any problems in them? Any deviations from your understanding of capitalism? Wait, hold hard there: Just what is capitalism? Have you ever read or heard a definition of the term? Could you state it concisely for the rest of my Gentle Readers?

     Not an easy assignment, is it?

     The great Thomas Sowell, in his book The Vision of the Anointed, made an important point about the law: We private citizens form our interpretation and evaluation of a proposed law according to the public meanings of the words in its text. We expect our lawmakers to do the same:

     Those who argue for...“judicial restraint” often say that judges should follow the “original intent” of laws in general and the Constitution in particular....Professor Ronald Dworkin, for example, argues against original intent on grounds that ‘mental events” in the minds of legislators or writers of the Constitution are difficult or impossible to discern. But of course, nobody voted on what was in the back of somebody else’s mind. What was enacted into law were the meanings of those words to others—in short, the public meanings of words. As Justice Holmes put it, the relevant question was “not what this man meant, but what those words would mean in the mouth of a normal speaker of English, using them in the circumstances in which they were used....We do not inquire what the legislature meant; we ask only what the statute meant.”

     That words have public meanings is the linchpin of the matter: the great majority of us know what they mean and expect them to be used according to those meanings. In their required courses in straining at gnats and swallowing elephants whole, lawyers learn how to pervert the meanings of words – to twist them into meanings and applications no non-lawyer would ever have imagined – so they can reach their intended aims. That’s one reason why “lawyer” has become a de facto synonym for “devious scoundrel.”

     However, not all words have generally agreed-upon public meanings at any given point in time. Such words often get the Humpty Dumpty treatment:

     'And only one for birthday presents, you know. There's glory for you!'
     'I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.
     Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'
     'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.
     'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'
     'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
     'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master — that's all.'

     [Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass]

     Capitalism is such a term. Markovsky and London have an intended meaning for it – but not one you and I, Gentle Reader, are guaranteed to accept.

     Thomas Sowell again:

     Since capitalism was named by its enemies, it is perhaps not surprising that the name is completely misleading. Despite the name, capitalism is not an “ism.” It is not a philosophy but an economy. Ultimately it is nothing more and nothing less than an economy not run by political authorities. There are no capitalist institutions; any number of ways of carrying out economic activities may flourish under “capitalism”—that is, in the absence of control from above. You may get food from a restaurant, or by buying it from the supermarket and cooking it yourself, or by growing the food on your own land and processing it all the way through to the dinner table. Each of these is just as much “capitalism” as the others...They do not define capitalism but are simply one of the innumerable ways of doing things when choices are unconstrained by authorities.
     Many have argued that capitalism does not offer a satisfactory moral message. But that is like saying that calculus does not contain carbohydrates, amino acids or other essential nutrients. Everything fails by irrelevant standards. Yet no one regards this as making calculus invalid or illegitimate. [Op cit.]

     Markovsky and London would like to encourage a particular attitude toward a feature of this “phase of capitalism:”

     Until recently, only the government could handle projects on the scale of the Hoover Dam and the interstate highway system, but now large corporations and investment funds have sufficient resources to build projects on any scale. Hence, there is no imperative for the government — federal, state or local — to finance and maintain modern infrastructure when private capital is available to do the job.

     Privatization of the infrastructure will open a new, multitrillion-dollar frontier for capitalism, and its effect could be massive. It has the potential to create a long-term economic expansion that will dwarf the scale of the Pacific Railroad and National Interstate and Defense Highways acts combined.

     An inspiring vision, to be sure...but how compatible is it with either capitalism or government? Governments enter into these agreements with private corporations with more than one end in view. The first, most obvious one is that a bridge, road, dam, or what-have-you should be built. A second one is that the item shall conform to the State’s dictates, which are usually the subject of a protracted negotiation with the private contractor, to say nothing of a lot of lying about “future intentions” and “future contracts.” A third is that the item should serve the interests of particular persons and institutions...some of which are not named and might never be known.

     Factor in the State’s predictable insistence that only certain lands are available through eminent domain, that only certain unions shall be employed in the work, and that the State shall have absolute hegemony of the item after it’s complete. Does any of that sound like an undertaking in “an economy not run by political authorities” – ?

     I teetered at the verge of anarchism for decades. Anarchism has some very attractive features. However, after a great deal of reading and hard thought, I was forced to conclude that anarchism shares a critical feature with government: instability:

     I shan’t attempt to deceive or misdirect you: I’m horrified by politics and all its fruits. I consider the use of coercive force against innocent men the greatest of all the evils we know. But I try, most sincerely, to be realistic about the world around us. In that world, peopled by men such as ourselves, anarchism—the complete abjuration and avoidance of the State—is unstable. In time, it will always give way to politics. Hammer it to the earth as many times as you may, you will never succeed in killing it permanently. The State will rise again. [From the Foreword to Freedom’s Fury]

     Many who’ve dabbled in anarchism have sought a compromise in the privatization of various undertakings we’ve routinely deeded to the State. “Public-private partnership” is the term most commonly applied to such compromises: the State decrees a need or a priority, but some private institution is charged with its execution. It sounds nice, but in practice it’s a morally confused, practically unworkable disaster. The State will always contrive to control as many elements of such a “partnership” as possible. Ultimately, whether through contractual agreement or post hoc seizure, it will control all of them.

     Which returns us to the question in the opening segment: What is capitalism? If it’s Thomas Sowell’s conception of “an economy not run by political authorities,” such “partnerships” contradict it. If it’s to embrace Markovsky and London’s calls for privatization, it’s a fraud. Since the word appears to have no generally agreed-upon meaning – pace Sowell, you can thank capitalism’s enemies for that – the question becomes unanswerable in the general setting.

     The purpose of an undefinable thing is as murky as the thing itself. However, we can know this much: individuals operating in freedom act according to their own purposes. In keeping with Ludwig von Mises’s “axiom of action,” those purposes can be generically enumerated:

  • Advancement toward a positive outcome (e.g., greater wealth, security, or status; one’s welfare or that of a loved one);
  • Averting a foreseen negative outcome (e.g., penury, shame, vulnerability, or harm to self or a loved one).

     Which is why I concur with what Nathaniel Branden told us about an early encounter with Ayn Rand:

     Even though he was considerably older and more mature, Branden was no wiser about economics or the peculiar position of capitalism in the scheme of economic systems. Rand pointed him at a number of books, including Henry Hazlitt's Economics In One Lesson and Isabel Paterson's The God Of The Machine, which he proceeded to digest and ponder. Even so, by Branden's own statement, he "still didn't get it."
     There came a fateful day when Rand asked him: "Do you believe that man has the right to exist?"
     The young man replied, "Why, Miss Rand, of course he does!"
     Rand immediately countered, "You do understand, the right to exist means the right to exist for one's own sake?"
     Branden replied, "But Miss Rand, of course! If he didn't exist for his own sake, it would mean he was existing by permission!"
     Rand nodded and said, "The political implementation of that idea is capitalism."
     And Branden said, "Oh!"
     "From that beginning," Branden continued, "capitalism, for me, was filled with moral energy....It was the only economic system fit for human consumption."

     [As told by Branden to an audience at the 1987 California state Libertarian Party convention. From an essay first published at the Palace of Reason.]

Unhappy about some far off things
That are not my affair, wandering
Along the coast and up the lean ridges,
I saw in the evening
The stars go over the lonely ocean,
And a black-maned wild boar
Plowing with his snout on Mal Paso Mountain.

The old monster snuffled, "Here are sweet roots,
Fat grubs, slick beetles and sprouted acorns.
The best nation in Europe has fallen,
And that is Finland,
But the stars go over the lonely ocean,"
The old black-bristled boar,
Tearing the sod on Mal Paso Mountain.

"The world's in a bad way, my man,
And bound to be worse before it mends;
Better lie up in the mountain here
Four or five centuries,
While the stars go over the lonely ocean,"
Said the old father of wild pigs,
Plowing the fallow on Mal Paso Mountain.

"Keep clear of the dupes that talk democracy
And the dogs that talk revolution,
Drunk with talk, liars and believers.
I believe in my tusks.
Long live freedom and damn the ideologies,"
Said the gamey black-maned boar
Tusking the turf on Mal Paso Mountain.

[Robinson Jeffers]

     Have a nice day.

1 comment:

jeff said...

"Just what is capitalism?...Not an easy assignment, is it?"

Actually, I think it's rather easy. It is the exchange of value for value, is it not? And the further away from that you get, and consequently the more broadly you want your definition to be, the more perverse the concept becomes. Additionally, every bureaucratic whim that attaches itself to the initial equation, perverts the simplicity.

I just finished reading The Road to Wigan Pier; I know that Orwell would not agree with my definition, and I'm okay with that.